Disaster Operations

The hurricanes that hit the Southern United States devastated homes, businesses, and lives. In the midst of the disaster, some airport-based businesses were able to carry on and play vital roles in recovery and relief.

Nelson says some of the chain’s locations have experienced problems with the fuel supply, including at the corporate headquarters in Houston.

She reports that Million Air Houston was the only FBO on the field that stayed open throughout the storm. “I think most of the other facilities closed, but we got creative with finding more fuel. Our goal was to keep the availability of fuel at our airport because we started doing medivac missions.”

One of the ways the operator was able to stretch the fuel was to ask pilots to take on less fuel so it could be conserved for the medivac operations. “We asked the pilots, what’s the least amount of fuel you can take? And everybody was very patient and understanding.” Million Air Houston had medivac aircraft carrying patients from Hurricane Katrina as well as evacuating patients from Houston hospitals prior to landfall of Rita.

As Hurricane Rita was approaching the Houston area, many of the FBO’s staff were evacuated from their homes. “What we ended up doing is we had a lot of key personnel and management staff that weren’t in mandatory evacuation areas and we stayed and we ran the FBO.

“We had probably 200 people in our lobby with kids, dogs, cats, and every space that was on the floor, people were sitting down. There were periods that the airport shut down the air space for general aviation and they did only commercial [air service], and there were periods where commercial aviation was shut down and general aviation was flying.”

It Becomes Critical

Crucial to the operations of many of the FBOs in the Million Air chain across North America is the server and telephone system that is housed at its Houston corporate headquarters. Says Nelson, “We have a very creative IT department that was able to put a plan together and make sure there was no disruption of service.”

“We had generators and were managing the servers to try to keep all the other FBOs across our chain alive and well. And it worked out being more important than we even realized because a lot of the military operations that were going out of Lake Charles were being reserved through our Million Air mail system. So it was imperative that that mail system stay active so they could start the relief efforts in Lake Charles.”

The Million Air dispatch center was relocated to Fayetteville, AR, says Nelson. “They dispatched for Salt Lake City, Houston, and backed up some of the other locations. And as soon as the sun started shining in Houston, they were on their way back.”

Nelson says the disaster plan the company had in place was a “solid one. But you realize how flexible its requirements are.” She relates that the Houston operation is looking into purchasing a larger generator to support the facility in case of an extended period without electricity.

“There are so many things you take for granted: food, water, open restaurants. There were just so many factors that you don’t conceive of in a disaster situation. And all of that stuff started happening — that infrastructure started shutting down with the possibility of a disaster. We had tropical storm weather — we were brushed by a hurricane; but the possibility exhausted infrastructure that you wouldn’t have considered.”

Minor Damage at MSY FBO

Signature Flight Support operates an FBO at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans. According to senior director of marketing, Joe Gibney, the MSY facility has minor damage to the exterior of the building but no structural damage. “We did lose power, water, telephone service. We had a generator pre-staged and had power back on by Thursday,” says Gibney. “Other services came on over the next week and a half.”

The New Orleans facility was only closed for a “short period of time,” says Gibney. “The storm ended Monday midday. We opened and were fueling rescue helicopters Monday afternoon.”

One Signature employee stands out for Gibney. “Immediately after the storm he was able to perform all quality checks on the fuel equipment and begin fueling aircraft. He was our one employee for about 48 hours. He pumped 14,000 gallons of fuel by himself on Tuesday. And by Wednesday we were able to get additional employees in to assist him.”

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